Jill J Marsh talks to a Zürich-based editor and translator
Let’s start with you. How would you describe yourself?
I’m foremost a translator, but also a proofreader and editor. My background is in economic history, so I started in banking, then moved into fact-checking, language improvement, quality control and editing.
What kind of editing?
Mostly proofreading. I don’t interfere to a major degree, but I’m a reader, so if I see something just won’t work, is too confusing or so dense that nobody will ever read it, then I say ‘you should go back and do that again’. Perfection would be nice, but it’s rarely possible, so my job is to minimise imperfections.
What about fiction?
Great! I love to read, I read everything. Even if I’m sat in the bathroom, I’ll read what’s contained in the Toilet Duck. I have to read and I love fiction so that’s a win-win situation. I would love to read these books anyway, so if I can do that and indulge my inner pedant and grammar nerd, it’s great. I get paid for inserting semi-colons!
How does working with the client differ?
With non-fiction, people aren’t quite so attached. It’s part of their job, but not part of their life, they still have a little bit of distance. They’re more likely to take criticism on board and not take it personally. With fiction, these manuscripts really are people’s children. I edited a compendium of poems and that’s such a personal thing. You have to be very careful, but you have to be fair. It’s like being with your friend in the changing rooms at Top Shop; you have to be honest, but kind.
How would you describe the successful author/editor relationship?
Honest, open and flexible on both sides. At the end of the day, the author retains responsibility for the final product. If I say ‘I’d do it like this’ and the author says ‘No’, that’s fine. There has to be trust, because I try to make as few changes as possible. I don’t want to slash and burn for the sake of it. But if there are egregious errors in there, you have to trust my professionalism and say OK, I’ll fix it.
Some people will, some won’t.
No, and then it’s like talking to a wall. I find it interesting to work with Track Changes, because you can put comments in little bubbles, explaining why you’re suggesting an alteration. It’s the next best thing to being in the same room, which is rarely geographically possible. But another thing that’s dangerous is if the writer feels the changes have come from a trusted source—this happens most with non-fiction—and they just Accept All Changes. Which means they don’t go through the learning process and understand why it didn’t work the first time, so they’ll make the same mistake again.
How do you retain the author’s voice?
You have to be aware that you only play a secondary role as an editor. I read through the manuscript once first, as an outsider. You come to understand the voice and the way of thinking. If you start changing things from the first sentence, you have to do that all the way through. Then you get halfway and realise why they did it like that in the first place. At the moment, I’m reading Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother. She’s coming across as so bitter. But I’m only halfway through. I can’t judge how I’ll feel at the end. In fiction, you need to get a sense of the writer’s personality and how much it means to them.
Self-publishing has changed the landscape. Does that make the future look rosy for people like you?
As an editor, yes because authors are looking for editors outside the major publishing houses. But for literature per se, it could be quite dangerous. It’s great when people are professional about it, that those who have researched and honed their writing have the opportunity to publish. But it also means people who just want their name on a book cover can do so. Will they care enough to get their work edited?